Ga. rules so far unable to end illicit massage

In the end, Georgia regulations of massage parlors revolve around the word “massage.”

The state’s Macon-based Board of Massage Therapy can regulate people and businesses that say they’re giving massages, but they can’t touch a spa that’s performing “bodywork” — even if it looks like a massage or outright prostitution.

That wouldn’t change significantly under a bill by Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon. Staton said the biggest part of his bill is making it clear that local governments can regulate massage practices. He said he’s always thought local governments are free to act, but the worries held up a Macon City Council proposal for two years.

“I challenged our local officials to take this seriously and do something,” Staton said.

Staton said he wanted to eradicate a “scourge” in Macon but has little interest in expanding state regulation to practices that look like but don’t call themselves a massage business.

“Maybe legitimate bodywork is a legitimate issue, but it’s independent from Macon’s houses of prostitution,” Staton said.

The Georgia Board of Massage Therapy can issue cease-and-desist orders to fake massage therapists and later fine them, said Matt Carrothers, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, which helps coordinate the Board of Massage Therapy. But the board has never issued such fines, Carrothers said.

One provision of Staton’s bill would make it a felony on the third offense to offer massages or advertise massages without being a licensed massage therapist. Violators could be fined $25,000 and spend one to five years in jail. The bill also clarifies that owners and operators can be penalized.

Kathy Lescak of Metter, who serves on the state board, said problems of prostitution have tainted the image of legitimate massage across the state. Her training started at age 14 with a Red Cross class on massaging pregnant women. She’s now 60, and over the years she has been propositioned by everyone from a doctor to truck drivers.

Lescak wonders whether the state should begin regulating everything that seems like a massage, even if it’s not called massage.

The state’s inspectors face other constraints. Lescak said budget constraints mean there aren’t enough inspectors to spot check businesses, and most checks would come only after a complaint was filed.

“The inspectors can’t go in the door unless they suspect massage therapy is being done without a license, and a lot of times, why would they think that the spa of Macon is illegal?” Lescak said.

Two other state massage board members, Jane Johnson and Steve Earles, declined to comment. The other member, Melony Phillips, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The reality in Macon

The Telegraph checked on 11 massage parlors where police or deputies have made arrests.

Four were out of business or had moved. Those storefronts remained vacant.

Two others, All American Spa and Tokyo Health Spa, were operating but not advertising massages. Ultimate Spa, which is changing its name to Happy Relaxation, also did not advertise massages.

Another one, Soft Hands Massage and Spa, which still has a billboard and a Web site under that name, is changing its name to Sedona Tanning Salon. A banner announcing its new management covers up the old “massage” name still painted on the windows.

But three other businesses with a history of arrests were advertising massages. It wasn’t clear whether any of the businesses have a state-licensed massage therapist on staff. No managers returned requests for comment. No massage licenses were posted in any of the businesses’ entry ways.

Angel Spa boasts a large “massage therapy” sign on the corner of Mercer University and North Atwood drives. Inside, a florescent light fixture has been partially spray-painted to add a red light over a small foyer. In October, an employee was arrested on a charge of masturbation for hire, and that case is pending.

Country Hill Spa on Pio Nono Avenue still has a banner advertising its grand opening and offers business cards advertising “relaxing massage” and “body shampoo.” In October, an employee was arrested on a charge of prostitution, and that case is pending as well.

Four Seasons Sauna on Arkwright Road in unincorporated Bibb County advertises “Relaxation .... include dry sauna, body shampoo, massage therapy.” Business cards describe “therapeutic massage and sauna.” In 2008, one employee pleaded guilty to a prostitution charge, but another skipped a court appearance and is wanted by authorities.

David Corr, a local Libertarian who said he’s acting as an unpaid spokesman for local massage parlors, said neither state nor local governments have a legitimate interest in regulating massages in any way.

Corr, who argues that prostitution should be legalized, said there have been no charges involving sex slavery or human trafficking, both of which he would vehemently oppose.

“They can’t point to a single case where anybody’s been harmed at all, really,” he said. “What you’ve got is satisfied customers, satisfied employees and satisfied employers. I think state legislation is draconian when you talk about something that’s been a misdemeanor becoming a felony on the third offense.”

Corr said prostitution and masturbation for hire are already illegal under current laws, and there’s no point in unfairly targeting massage parlors when hotels, escort services and other businesses also enable it.

Staton said his legislation — which cleared the Senate on March 17 with a unanimous vote — might not end prostitution problems in massage parlors. But he echoed Corr’s point that other laws remain.

“If someone goes in there and activity is occurring that’s illegal, fines will still be there,” he said. “Our law is not without penalties for people who do masturbation for hire or prostitution.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.